Monday, November 21, 2022



The CDC released a report this year on  Workplace Mental Health and Well-being .  (pdf ) Dr. Murthy said in his introduction "when the mental health of workers suffers, so does workplace productivity, creativity, and retention." (page 4) This is an urgent need, he finds, and one that should be addressed by corporations themselves. The primacy of the workplace in individual lives "creates both a responsibility and unique opportunity for leaders to create workplace environments that   the health and well-being of workers." (page 5)  The surgeon general is turning to workplaces, including private workplaces, to do more than the minimum required by state and federal  law. "Organizational leaders, managers, supervisors, and workers alike have an unprecedented opportunity to examine the role of work in our lives and explore ways to better enable all workers to thrive within the workplace and beyond." (page 5) When taken in the context of the American labor landscape, this seems odd. In the face of the last forty years of active erosion of labor protections, it's downright radical.
While the Surgeon General is highlighting the benefits to workers, he is placing this call to corporations in the context of the Covid-era disruption to the labor market, overall, and the persistent labor shortage in the United States. Though Dr. Murthy doesn't mention it in his report, real unemployment was low before the pandemic, and in October 2022 hit levels not seen in 22 years. The official unemployment rate in February 2020, just before the pandemic disrupted everything, was 3.5%, a historic low which was reached again in September 2022. The labor market is even tighter in high-skilled sectors; workers with a bachelor's degree or higher have an unemployment rate of 1.9% as of last month, compared to 6.3% (still considered remarkably low) for those who didn't finish high school.  
Conversations about a tight labor market are no surprise for IT mangers, especially those at IT companies. "The already tight labor market just became even tighter as competition for tech talent reaches near-record levels," said Tim Herbert, chief research officer at CompTIA. "For any employer relying on the old hiring playbook, it's time to rethink approaches to recruiting and retention." Tech companies added 20,700 workers in October, making it the 23rd straight month of job growth.  employers’ most-desired tech positions included software developers and engineers (85,796 postings in October), IT support specialists, IT project managers, systems engineers, and network engineers. In others words, everyone is looking for the same people we are. Forbes called the IT job market "blazing hot."
Remote teams such as ours are top of the wish-list for the tech workers that we need most. We are, in fact, a pretty good team. And we pay well. We have some definite quirks, not the least of which is that the products we work with have legacy and migration issues, and working with the database we've chosen is like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube behind your back. Add in the infrastructure problems, the constant sense that everything is on fire, workflow confusion, and the communication barriers, and we end up being a difficult team to mesh with. 
But what does this have to do with the Surgeon General's recent report?
It turns out that one of the Five Essentials is "Mattering," a weird, fungible concept that is made up of, according to the report, "meaning" and "dignity," which are possibly even more fungible than "mattering." Unsurprisingly, lack of meaning and dignity is at the heart of the matrix that results in a workplace being "'toxic': disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat, and abusive" (page 6). It might feel like the efforts of a Tech lead can't do much in the face of such sweeping cultural needs, that the landscape is too vast and the requirements too daunting. Yet I believe that the Tech Manager, in conjunction with the Tech Lead for each team, is exactly the right champion to lead and carry the flag of mattering. People don't quit jobs; they quit bosses. When someone asks a friend "how's it going at work?" they don't talk about huge sweeping corporate initiatives (unless that's part of their daily workflow); they talk about their bosses and their coworkers, and the ease or difficulty they experience in getting their work done day to day. They also, importantly, talk about team friction, and the sense of whether or not they feel like they matter. This is a team-level matrix, not a corporate one. The CEO can talk about respectful, inclusive work environments, but the execution of this happens from one team to the next, and the climate of mattering can change dramatically. More than any other single person, the Tech Manager has the ability to create and communicate a sense of mattering. We do this by defending our people from within. We do this through leadership. (N.B: Leadership is a service position more than one of authority, and that's how I'm using the word here.)
Workers and team members require decisive, clear, unwavering support for a sense of mattering -- a small infraction is often dismissed, and it's this dismissal that erodes mattering, and does so at great speed. "What people find de-energizing is a lack of meaning in their work, the cognitive load required to prepare for and get through interactions with toxic bosses and colleagues" (emphasis added).  Mattering, once broken, is almost impossible to repair. Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria had many options for addressing the prep school graffiti, and he chose to treat it as a leader. The idea of a slight against "someone down in the prep school" or of treating it as "school age shenanigans" or simple "unfortunate bad behavior" and thereby being dismissed was never entertained. We must, as leaders, call out "horrible ideas" and actions and we must, as Silveria did, bring the entire team together to show that the leadership supports the team and responds with "a better idea." And ultimately, we must say, with one clear voice, "If you can't treat people with dignity and respect, get out."

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